For now, one of the newest entries into the Twin Cities radio scene is a couple of people sitting behind a folding table covered with a mess of cords, two computer monitors and a microphone.
Inside the nondescript University Avenue building in St. Paul, in a space shared with a Hmong art studio, a friendly bulldog and some pails to catch the drips from a leaky roof, a growing group of ambitious amateur broadcasters is trying to build something that sounds like the diverse neighborhood that surrounds its makeshift studio.
Frogtown Community Radio, already launched online and soon hitting local airwaves, is one of four low-power, community stations set to formally debut in Minneapolis and St. Paul over the next few months. The radio bonanza is the result of the Local Community Radio Act, a change in federal law that went into effect in 2011 and opened up more space for the kind of stations that run on small budgets, rely on volunteer staffs and offer programming that ranges from cooking shows to English-language instruction.
Some of the stations have already put up their antennas, but most are still trying to build up a full schedule of programs, teach basic broadcasting skills to radio newcomers and figure out how to find enough money to keep the power on and maybe even pay a few staff members. While the people behind all of the stations represent different types of communities, they have a shared goal: putting something on the airwaves that you can’t hear anywhere else.
The stations’ signals typically have a reach of only a few miles, but organizers say the impact will be broader.
Philip Gracia, who has already hosted two programs on the Frogtown station (“Real Talk with Real Brothers,” a talk show, and “The Midday Escape,” a noontime program featuring smooth jazz and soul), said hosting a radio show is harder than he expected, but it’s rewarding to help share the thoughts and sounds of his community.
“The Frogtown neighborhood is underrepresented … this is a way to amplify the voices of Frogtown,” he said.
Using multiple languages
In south Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood, home to people who are black, white, American Indian, Somali-American, Kenyan, Mexican, Tibetan and more, Brendan Kelly is one of the organizers behind a yet-to-be named community station that will play programming in multiple languages to provide something for the entire community.
“That means putting a lot of focus on the groups who are often underrepresented or entirely missing from the radio,” he said.
The station license is held by the Waite House community center, which has a member on the station’s advisory board, along with representatives from the Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI), Hope Community and Voices For Racial Justice.
Organizers say they’re planning open training sessions for anyone in the community, outfitting some local computer labs with audio editing equipment and recruiting residents to fill every role at the station. They’re taking suggestions for the station’s name and call letters through an online survey (current contenders include KPZR, “People’z Radio” and KIZA, “to fight” in Lakota.)
Jay Bad Heart Bull, president of NACDI, said he sees the station as a way to connect the large urban American Indian population with languages and traditions that are more commonly found on reservations.
“I look at the radio station as a way to bridge that divide,” he said.
On St. Paul’s East Side, an antenna went up in August for the new East Side Community Radio station. The Dayton’s Bluff-based operation is already on the air around the clock, though so far the programming is just a placeholder: a random selection of music.
Brenda Reid, program manager for the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council, which holds the station license, said organizers are launching a membership drive and a campaign to get local businesses to underwrite programs. They hope to have original programming on the air starting Oct. 5.
The station is taking programming suggestions and volunteers to host shows on its website and has already built up a sizable list, Reid said. Among the potential options: a Hmong music and art show, programs on mental health, poetry, cooking, St. Paul places and events and something called “Know Your East Side,” which would feature interviews with local politicians, business owners and musicians. “The actual community doesn’t have a voice in mainstream media,” Reid said. “We’re hoping to stay in touch by recruiting and talking to people that live in this community and entice them into creating a station that’s important to them.”
Near the other new station in south Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood, Mahamed Cali is part of a team that’s been working for years to build the first Somali-American radio station, which will broadcast in both Somali and English. The station already has an antenna up and its call letters picked — KALY, which means “come here” in Somali.
Cali said programming will include weather forecasts, information about transportation and the city and music. It will also feature language programs to help Somali-speakers learn English and English-speakers learn Somali.
“For people who don’t have an opportunity to go to school and learn English, they can learn at home,” he said.
This summer, the station — through the Midtown Phillips Neighborhood Association and the Somali American Community — received $26,000 from the city of Minneapolis’ Community Innovation Fund. Cali said his group is looking for additional supporters. So far, the staff is all volunteer, but the station has an unusual asset — a roster of people who were once professional broadcasters in Somalia.
The station is also getting some training help from the larger and more established community station KFAI, which currently offers one hour of Somali programming.
Back in Frogtown, where volunteer broadcaster Vong Lee stopped by Thursday to record “The Power Hour with Vong Lee,” a show focused on deep dives into hip-hop albums and artists, the station is developing a little bit every day. In between recording a segment on early-90s hip-hop group Digable Planets, Lee and his college student-intern producer Jon Riddle talked about federal broadcasting requirements and played back music snippets to ensure they’d blurred out any inappropriate language.
Lee wrapped up his old-school hip-hop set with an old-school radio signoff.
“Thanks for tuning in,” he said.